The Gravity of Tragedy When Devising Theatre
A murdered father, a mentally ill sister, and the remains of a broken family. Braided, a production by Turning Point Theatre Company, ran for two nights at The Barron at The Byre last week. The play follows a mother, Shona, and her two daughters, Alison and Joanie, as they navigate their complex relationships with each other in the wake of their father’s death. All three actors’ performances were superb—as I witnessed on the opening night—throwing themselves into their roles and encompassing their characters’ conflicting emotions. However, whilst I was watching, I couldn't help but feel as though I had been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.
After asking the opinions of my fellow audience members, I found that my thoughts were not unpopular, as they too had thought that in spite of the production’s talented actors and lyrical lines, the themes felt somewhat overdone and reminiscent of GCSE/ALevel Drama.
As an ALevel Drama alumnus myself, I can attest to the allure of a tragic storyline for a devised performance. For those who are unacquainted with this form of qualification (and who haven’t delved into the wonders of Theatre Studies TikTok), Drama A Level is examined on two sections: the written exam and the coursework. The latter takes the form of both a scripted performance—involving performing an extract taken from an existing script—and a devised performance, where you create your own production and script within a group. It is when watching this second devised performance that you are guaranteed to witness a pregnant teen, alcoholic mother, or mentally ill relative be thrown into the mix onstage in the midst of an Artaud-esque soundscape or Complicité-inspired physical theatre segment.
So what is it about these tropes that makes them so hard to resist?
Our penchant for devising tragic drama is perhaps owing to the fact that it is simply an easy way out. Heavy topics (such as death and mental health) can be used as vehicles to portray a character’s feelings and backstory to the audience without having to think of an original storyline. However, it is within this shortcut that lies the issue: although the script may read well as a literary piece (because there is no storyline), only a handful of tropes merged together into a piece; the production imparts no real message to audience members. And although you may relate to a couple of lines within a piece, you don’t leave the theatre having gained anything different or new from other productions that have dealt with the same issues.
This excess of tragedy can in some cases also feel forced, as though every ‘Gen Z’ buzzword—social media, anxiety, etc.—is being crammed into the script in order to be ‘relatable’ to a modern audience. The more we see these tropes in the theatre, the more we as audience members are becoming desensitised to these topics as actual issues. No longer are monologues about mental health problems tearjerkers because, ultimately, you have heard hundreds of them before.
Turning Point Theatre Company’s instagram bio reads, “Hot girls with feelings,” but maybe we need to take a break from the dark, heavy topics and instead choose new ways to portray these emotions. Heavy storylines are not necessary to justify sad feelings: your mentally ill sister doesn’t need to have murdered your father for you to feel disconnected from your family. Besides, most girls can’t relate to such a niche scenario anyways. Rather, productions need a storyline at their core in order to engage audience members with something other than the expected.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons